COOL STUFF Good swordsmanship

By Bruce Adams, photos by kc kratt

Fencing at Lafayette Presbyterian Church in Buffalo.

Pop quiz: what’s the coolest sport? Not just a cool athletic activity, but one associated with cool people—at least in movies, theater, and books. It’s not skydiving, skateboarding, or NASCAR; they lack history. Freestyle skiing or snowboarding? Not even close. Not tennis or rodeo, and aside from The Big Lebowski there are very few cool bowlers. Here’s a hint: think Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Captain Blood, Robin Hood, Jack Sparrow, Blade, the Bride in Kill Bill—all the very picture of cool. The answer, of course, is fencing. Actors from Basil Rathbone, Errol Flynn, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., to modern stars like Antonio Banderas, Orlando Bloom, and Madonna have all been associated with swordsmanship. The list of famous fencers—from Descartes and George Patton to Neil Diamond and Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson—is as long as a saber blade. The popular image of the swordfighter is one of style, elegance, and panache. Ever see a Musketeer fire a musket? Of course not; that would be like Obi-Wan Kenobi brandishing a blaster.

Turns out fencing is accessible to anyone, not just the socially privileged, financially advantaged, and perpetually suave. There are several fencing clubs in the Buffalo area where anyone can learn classical-style fencing, the oldest of which is Les Amis, which meets twice weekly at Lafayette Presbyterian Church on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. Last year I joined Les Amis with my sixteen-year-old son Garrett, highlighting another aspect of fencing: it’s a sport for the whole family, from teenagers to AARP members. Fencing not only favors (and develops) speed and agility, but also the wisdom and strategy that come with age.

Club president—and Erie County assistant district attorney by day—Brian Langenfeld dispels some popular misconceptions about the sport. “It’s actually not expensive, and it’s very safe compared to other sports. I’ve been injured more playing basketball than I have fencing.” Langenfeld points out that people fence for a variety of reasons. “There’s a group that come down just for the social aspect, and to try something new. We have another group who come down for exercise; it’s one of the best workouts you can get.” Club secretary Anthony Laulette, a daytime Ingram Micro employee, agrees. “I’m not a person who would typically run on a treadmill; I only run when chased. So something like this, where nine minutes of fencing is like running a mile, suits me.”

Like many fencers, Laulette traces his interest in the sport to childhood. “When you’re a kid, you’re always sword fighting. At Christmas when your mom’s done with the wrapping paper and you have those cardboard tubes, what do you do? You pick them up and swat each other.”

David LoTempio’s attraction to fencing also began as a kid. The club treasurer, a grant supervisor for People Incorporated, says, “Growing up, I was always something of a geek for fantasy and adventure stories—Edgar Rice Burrows and Robert E. Howard—so I kind of liked the idea of swashbuckling fighting.”

Fencing instructor Linda Sova pushes a printed copy of her own written thoughts into my hand, telling me, “That’s everything I have to say.” The passage begins, “When I was growing up back in the sixties, a metal garbage can lid and a stick would suffice when I defended myself acting out the things I saw on television.”

Real fencing is more formal, but the childhood thrill remains. Club vice president Stephanie Cole—general counsel at Niagara University—is about to fence in the evening’s intramural club tournament. “Generally, when I’m on the deck is the most nervous part,” says Cole, “Once I’m on the strip, there’s no nerves.” Moments later, her bout against new member Jake Givens begins. Head instructor Dan Sova (he and wife Linda met in the club) referees. The fencers salute each other and don masks. Sova instructs them, “En garde … Fencers ready … Allé.” Blades tap tentatively, followed by a lightning-fast flurry of clinks. “Halt,” calls Sova. “Attack from my right; parry reposte from the left; stop attack from the right.” Sova checks with the four judges, then announces, “Point right.” In fifty-one fencing seconds, Cole wins the bout.

Cole and my son are among Les Amis members who regularly compete in regional tournaments where the competition is intense. “I wasn’t happy with my last performance [at Canada’s London Heroes tournament],” says Cole, “but I was happy with the experience because I learned a lot.” At sixteen, Garrett, a City Honors student, has been surprisingly successful in tournament competition, taking the gold medal in the last two club competitions and regularly placing high in regional adult competition. When we started a year ago, I could usually beat him. But under the tutelage of Sova the southpaw kid has improved dramatically. I ask how he explains his success. “I’m left handed,” he says, adding with a grin, “and I’m a prodigy.”

Ten-week intro classes are $50, all supplies provided. or check the club website for details.

Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, writer, former president of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, skeptic, gardener, former magician, husband, and father.